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Turning to the Web for wine

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I like to taste new varieties of red wine, sip a glass with friends and listen to my more learned pals as they educate me on the differences between a Barbera and a Cabernet. And I really like shopping for wines, browsing among the creative labels in search of something new and reasonably priced that’s likely to please my dinner companions.

What I haven’t tried yet is buying wine online, an industry that’s just starting to gain momentum in some international markets and often faces daunting hurdles in the U.S., where state laws govern online wine sales and sometimes ban them outright.

Vente-Privee made about €20 million selling deeply discounted bottles of wine in the luxury online retailer’s native France, and last month added Germany and Spain to the list of countries where consumers have access to the high-end vintages selected by sommeliers from the Hotel de Crillon and the two-star Michel Rostang restaurant in Paris. “Wine is emotional. It’s the sun, the work of men, the soil. It becomes really exceptional when we put a discount price on it,” Vente-Privee founder Jacques-Antoine Granjon told Bloomberg.

But the founder’s romantic vision for affordable online sales of upscale wines will have to wait in the U.S. The site has focused on offering upscale fashion deals instead of wine in America, where it launched late last year as part of a joint venture with American Express.

Free the Grapes! bills itself as a “national grassroots coalition of wine lovers, wineries and retailers who seek to remove restrictions in states that still prohibit consumers from purchasing wines directly from wineries and retailers.”

The site supports state and federal measures aimed at making it easier for wine producers to sell directly to consumers, a key area that needs to be addressed if online wine sales are to thrive in the U.S. The issue is a hot button for the nation’s burgeoning ranks of small, often family-run wineries that lack national distribution channels for their products.

The number of U.S. wineries now tops out at about 7,000, a 500% increase during the past three decades, and they’re spread out with at least one in every state, according to Free the Grapes! American wine lovers want to try the new vintages and the wineries want to expand their reach, a seemingly perfect fit for the e-commerce business model.

On the opposite side of the argument are wholesalers, as represented by the Wine & Spirits Wholesalers of America, who say their role as middleman creates jobs and ensures that consumers get high-quality wine and spirits.

Have you bought wine online? Were you happy with your purchase? Tell us about your experience in the comments.

Image credit: shippee via iStockphoto